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Thomas Hodgskin on the futility of politicians tinkering with bad laws when the whole political system needed to be changed (1832)

The British naval officer and later radical journalist Thomas Hodgskin (1878-1869) denounced the politicians in Westminster for tinkering endlessly with trying to patch and mend the laws when what was required was a fundamental change in thinking about what government should do:

Rapidly therefore as the gentlemen at Westminster work, making three or four hundred laws per year, repeating their tasks session after session—actively as they multiply restraints, or add patch after patch, they invariably find that the call for their labours is continually renewed. The more they botch and mend, the more numerous are the holes. Knowing nothing of natural principles, they seem to fancy that society—the most glorious part of creation, if individual man be the noblest of animals—derives its life and strength only from them. They regard it as a baby, whom they must dandle and foster into healthy existence; but while they are scheming how to breed and clothe their pretty fondling—lo! it has become a giant, whom they can only control as far as he consents to wear their fetters.

But if you have not studied the natural principles which regulate society, do you believe that the bankers and merchants, whose lives are passed in a counting-house—that country gentlemen, who are minutely acquainted with horses and dogs, with good living, and the duty of punishing poachers—that treasury clerks, who by performing sundry mechanical evolutions, come at length to sit on the treasury benches—that captains and colonels who are great at manœuvring a ship or a regiment—that lords of the bed-chamber, whose lives are passed amidst the frivolous dissipation of London and Paris—do you believe that the members of the motley group, which, when collected at Westminster, the public honours as the legislature of this country, have meditated night and day on these principles, and on the great interests they continually try to model after their own image of perfection? With one or two exceptions, they are so ignorant that they have yet to learn the existence of any natural laws regulating society. They believe that it is held together by the statutes at large; and they know no other laws which influence its destiny than those decreed by themselves and interpreted by the judges. If the legislature have not examined these principles, have they been examined by the practical lawyers engaged in the commission, whose whole soul is engrossed by the details of their profession? Has this work been done even by the public, who eagerly call for new regulations and who worship an idol under the name of law, more extensively mischievous than the Moloch of antiquity? For the public there is much excuse. Continually occupied in providing for their own animal wants, and the craving wants of the state, they have no time for deep investigation: and they are only to blame for relying implicitly on others, who, though, at least, as ignorant as themselves, arrogantly claim to govern and instruct them. If neither the public nor the legislature be acquainted with the ultimate objects at which the latter ought to aim, how is it possible that our tinkering mode of making laws, merely fastening together the links which time is continually snapping, can adapt our corroded and worn-out system to the future form and condition of society? Never were the discrepancies between the state of the law and the condition of society greater than at present. Never was the conviction so general that the laws must now be extensively altered and amended. Rapidly therefore as the gentlemen at Westminster work, making three or four hundred laws per year, repeating their tasks session after session—actively as they multiply restraints, or add patch after patch, they invariably find that the call for their labours is continually renewed. The more they botch and mend, the more numerous are the holes. Knowing nothing of natural principles, they seem to fancy that society—the most glorious part of creation, if individual man be the noblest of animals—derives its life and strength only from them. They regard it as a baby, whom they must dandle and foster into healthy existence; but while they are scheming how to breed and clothe their pretty fondling—lo! it has become a giant, whom they can only control as far as he consents to wear their fetters.

About this Quotation:

Thomas Hodgskin (1787-1869) was an officer in the British Navy before leaving because of his opposition to the brutal treatment of sailors he both witnessed and experienced first hand. His feistiness resulted in a passionate denunciation of the Navy’s treatment of impressed (conscripted) seamen during the Napoleonic Wars in An Essay on Naval Discipline (1813). He became a journalist and worked for the free trade magazine The Economist and wrote and lectured on laissez-faire economic ideas to working men’s institutes. In a collection of quite cheeky letters to one of the most senior politicians in England, Lord Brougham, the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, Hodgskin challenged the very foundations upon which the British state rested, its claim that the “artificial rights” to property created and defended by the state were superior to the “natural rights” of property which all people had prior to and in spite of what the state did. Because the Lord Chancellor and the elite who controlled parliament and the state’s bureaucracies did not understand the importance of this distinction, Hodgskin argued, they endlessly fiddled with the laws in order to try to make the “artificial” political system work. But they were out of touch and ignorant and largely unconcerned with the harm they were causing to ordinary people who just wanted to go about their business unmolested by government interference. Politicians like Brougham treated society like a baby which they dandled on their knee, all the while securing fetters to hang about its feet.

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